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IslamiCity > Articles > Evolution and Religious Developments
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The evolution of spiritual activities that enhance the successful survival of humanity is not only concerned with enhancing the survival of our own species. With the recent domestication of plants and animals and the very recent industrial revolution, Homo Sapiens (HS) acquired a great deal of responsibility for the evolution of most of the species on the planet itself.

Evolution and Religious Developments
2/11/2013 - Interfaith Science Religious - Article Ref: IC1301-5374
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By: Rabbi Allen S. Maller
IslamiCity* -

The Qur'an teaches us that, unlike other creatures, Homo Sapiens have been created to be Vice-regents on this earth. (2:30, 35:39, 38:26) Of the millions of species on this planet, only one can consciously have an impact on the evolution of life. That species is Homo Sapiens. Religion provides guidance and direction to enable humans to be good Vice-regents (agents of God) rather than destroyers of society and nature. The Qur'an also teaches that we should be able to see majesty in God by seeing that God has created humans in different, successive stages (71:14) and has caused us to grow from earth like a plant. (71:17) If for some reason we do not want to see God's majesty in the evolution of life in general and human beings in particular there is something the matter with us. (71:13) If this is so, why do some people (primarily evangelical Protestants) think there is a great conflict between evolution and religion

A great deal of unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding has been caused by the careless use of the terms 'human' and 'man' by evolutionists to describe the increasing number of fossil finds of tool using biped primate species (over a dozen now) that may have been ancestral to Homo Sapiens. I shall try to refer to each distinct species by its scientific name only. Recent fossils found on Flores Island in Indonesia in September 2003 are from a new species of tool using bipeds named Homo Floresiensis that lived as recently as 20,000 years ago. They are not pygmy Homo Sapiens. They used fire (in use by pre Homo Sapiens species for more than half a million years) and made stone tools, but we do not yet know if there is any evidence of ritual burials, which are the earliest forms of non-material cultural/religious activity. Most people think that the name 'human' or 'mankind' should be reserved only for our own species. Not using the name 'human' and 'man' carelessly would help resolve most of the conflict over the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution can help us understand why religion is so important for human survival and why religion is universal. Indeed, modern Homo Sapiens would be better named Homo Religiosus, a term used by many scholars in religious studies and anthropology. 

The evolution of spiritual activities that enhance the successful survival of humanity is not only concerned with enhancing the survival of our own species. With the recent domestication of plants and animals and the very recent industrial revolution, Homo Sapiens (HS) acquired a great deal of responsibility for the evolution of most of the species on the planet itself. The ability to genetically modify both plants and animals gives humanity a significant role in the future evolution of life. Thus the behavior of religious people themselves now becomes a factor in the evolution of life on earth. Religious behaviors are evidence of self-conscious creative thought processes most people associate with Homo Sapiens. Religious behaviors are the creative responses of intelligent minds to certain challenges in social and personal life. As I already wrote the Qur'an teaches us that, unlike other creatures, Homo Sapiens have been created to be Vice-regents on this earth. (2:30, 35:39, 38:26)  Only one of millions of species on this planet, can consciously have an impact on the evolution of life. That species is Homo Sapiens. Religion provides guidance and direction to enable humans to be good Vice-regents rather than destroyers of society and nature. Thus it is only natural that God has inspired thousands of individuals (124,000 according to Muslim tradition) to urge their communities to live according to God's will. But first God had to prepare humans (pre Adam) to be receptive to the words of the prophets. Although no one knows exactly how God works the following scenarios seem reasonable to me.

All sentient beings are able to respond to the challenges of life. In each species some individuals respond to new environmental challenges better than others do; and their descendants increase. Some sentient beings that are conscious are capable of learning from the challenges of life. They can improve themselves. A few are even able to show others what they have learned and thus improve their group and their descendants chances of survival. These species have developed cultural ways of meeting life's challenges. For many centuries it was thought that mankind's ability to use tools was what made us unique. However, we now know that several different species use tools (including birds) and Chimps not only use but also make at least three different kinds of tools for different functions. Chimp tool use differs in different locations (a cultural not a genetic difference). Chimps also show signs of self-awareness by recognizing themselves in a mirror. So what makes us what we are? 

First, we are small group, hierarchically organized, social primates. Any genes that enable the group (extended family and/or band) to function better will contribute to individual survival and reproduction. Second, the species that preceded Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal have been evolving larger and larger brains for several million years. Eventually two species, Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal evolved that achieved self-conscious ways of meeting life's challenges through non-material i.e. cultural and spiritual behaviors. (Homo Neanderthals is a species physically close to Homo Sapiens whose last common ancestor shared with Homo Sapiens lived about 660,000 years ago according to a DNA study published in 2008. HN co-inhabited in Europe and parts of western Asia with HS- anatomically modern humans, from about 120,000 to 29,000 years ago. HN were well adapted to the cold and were very muscular. They had slightly larger brains than HS) Increasing dependence on mental capacities became problematic for those individual HN and HS who malfunctioned mentally. Any genes that would help correct or ameliorate individual mental challenges would be selected for and would spread throughout the population. Spiritual activities among HS have evolved over the last 120-160,000 years. If one takes seriously the Biblical claim that humanity was created in the Divine image, spiritual evolution testifies to the creation of creatures who are co-creaters of purpose driven non-material responses to environmental and social challenges. 

Homo Sapiens (HS) faced at least half a dozen different challenges over the last 150,000 years that stimulated spiritual developments that improved survival rates both for groups and individuals within the group. One of the greatest challenges to increased intellectual development is anxiety and self-imposed stress. The more HS can think about things, the greater the ability to produce anxiety and self-imposed stress that are debilitating by themselves, and also depress the immune system. Anything that reduces stress and anxiety increases survival rates for intelligent minds. Also as successful groups got larger it became harder and harder to keep them from internal conflict and splitting. Larger groups, or groups with strong alliances, were more likely to win when there was intergroup conflict and had reduced negative affects from inbreeding. Anything that helped larger groups create bonds that were more than family, and behavioral norms that were more than mimicking would increase survival rates. Individuals with a mental illness could not contribute much to a tribe or band. Anything that helped heal or integrate these individuals would help survival rates. These are some of the situations faced by a species that began using its mind more and more.


The first challenge is also the ultimate one: death. Homo Sapiens is the only living species that knows in advance that death is inevitable. Genesis 2:17 teaches "on the day you eat it (the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will know) you will surely die." Elephants, Chimpanzees and Orangutans have been observed to mourn for a dead child, but no other living species practices ritual burial. The intelligent minds of HS responded to the death of loved ones by creating funeral rites and rituals of ancestor worship. Evidence from Qafzeh cave in northern Israel of ritual burial and grave goods (red ocher and mollusk shells of an inedible species) goes back 100 -120,000 years or more. These funeral rituals brought comfort and solace to the mourners. Funeral rituals also had the important effect of strengthening group solidarity at a time when leadership might be challenged and changing. Strengthening group solidarity reduced internal conflict and violence thus increasing the chances of raising children to adulthood. 

Although other species also dream, the intelligent minds of HS creatively concluded that dreams about the dead showed that the dead were still active and could continue to help their descendants. Thus departed spirits ought to be venerated and worshiped. . It is possible that nomadic hunter-gatherer bands used the skulls of important individuals in community rituals for many centuries. Two HS skulls from Herto in Ethiopia, well worn through handling, have been dated to more than 140,000 years ago. These ritual activities strengthened feelings of kinship within and among hunter-gather bands enabling them to be more stable and grow larger. This in turn increased the chances for survival of individuals within the more effective bands and clans. Ritual activities and ideas about help available from deceased ancestors reduced stress and anxiety and so led HS to expand the realm of spirits to the treatment of physical and mental illness. We now know that anxiety and stress weaken the immune system and increase the chances of not surviving an otherwise survivable illness. Anything that reduces anxiety and stress increases survival rates. This is one key reason that religious behavior became ubiquitous. 

Illness, especially mental illnesses that tend to be chronic rather than fatal, provided serious challenges to the intelligent minds of HS. Epilepsy, Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Phobias, Bipolar Disorders and other brain diseases occur in at least 2-3% of the population worldwide. Thus there should be at least one or two cases in every band of 50-100 people. Severe cases are very scary and disabling, but the intelligent minds of HS could react to the challenge of mild cases with a variety of rituals and practices that served to alleviate the symptoms through mind-body interactions that we recognize today as placebo faith healing. Placebo faith healing works primarily by reducing pain through endorphin release and increasing the strength of an individual's immune response, which is weakened by stress and anxiety. Only HS are known to be capable of placebo spiritual healing. Among HS today only a minority of individuals are able to heal themselves with the aid of placebo faith healing. The hope that ritual can heal and the ability to trust a healer are powerful factors that frequently bring about improvement. Chanting, drumming, dancing, meditation and fasting are widespread ways of inducing an alternative consciousness that helps alleviate pain, stress and anxiety. With the support of a community of believers, and a tradition that enhances their individual hope and trust results would be even better. A cure, either short or long term, isn't the only outcome in faith healing. The ceremony itself can reduce many of the side effects of the illness such as depression, stress, anger and negativity. This often ameliorates symptoms and brings relief. Chronic illness negatively impacts the immune system and eventually increases death rates. Ritual faith healing ameliorates symptoms for many people in these types of situations. This reintegrates the 'possessed' into a support group and reduces stress, strengthens the immune system and reduces death rates. 

A tiny charismatic minority, who themselves had struggled successfully to overcome these diseases, may became guides to others. These Shaman guides undertook journeys into a realm of evil spirits who they believed had caused these afflictions and effected cures. A 45-60,000 year old site in a cave at Shanidar, Iraq yielded the skeleton of a badly disabled older Homo Neanderthal that the excavator thought might be a Shaman. Since this individual could not hunt and thus support himself, the excavator suggested that the man disfigured by his shrunken arm and damaged eye, was thought "touched" by the spirits. Thus he might be able to communicate with them on behalf of the community. So the band had supported him, while he intervened with the spirits on their behalf. The bear skull found next to him, the red flowers piled upon his grave, and a ring of stones around the grave are all evidence of his ritual importance. His advanced age suggested that his HN group revered him for years. 

Elders of each family unit, usually in the home, regularly carry on ancestor worship to this day in East Asian religions. Shamans however, were called in as specialists for unusual situations. These Shamans were the first professionals. Their disciples were their most successful patients. Shamans in different bands and tribes most likely exchanged experiences and techniques with each other. Recent outcomes of psychotherapy studies have shown that Native American Healers have cure rates similar to those of modern clinical psychologists. The growing awareness of positive religious influences on restoring health has even entered medical school curricula. In 1995 only 17 American medical schools incorporated patient spirituality in their curricula; ten years later the number had increased to 101.

Brain diseases may be mysterious and scary but they are not contagious. Infectious diseases are. The intelligent minds of HS observed the spread of disease by contact or proximity and concluded that dangerous invisible pollution could occur. The most obvious source of pollution was a new corpse. It could pollute its surroundings and the people it came in contact with. This pollution is contagious. Even second and third hand pollution is dangerous. And very small amounts of pollution are also dangerous. Thus action must be taken to isolate or purify what has become polluted. Fortunately this can be done with specific rituals which serve to alleviate anxieties and stress caused by the spread of contagious diseases. Although newly dead corpses are the most potent source of contagion, fresh blood, especially menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth (a time of great danger to both mother and newborn due to infection) is also disturbing. By extension, other bodily issues like nocturnal emissions; running sores, and some activities like slaughter; and breaking taboos can also be viewed as polluting. Those who devoted themselves to restoring ritual purity achieved status and power. Their techniques and personalities were more bureaucratic than those of the charismatic Shamans, and so they were more likely to establish a hereditary priesthood. Ritually purifying things that were polluted became important to restoring a positive, hopeful and therefore healthy balance to society. Quarantining ritually polluted people and objects also sometimes reduced vulnerability to contagious disease.

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